Penn State-VITA tax prep program assists low-income families

University Park, Pa. — The annual ordeal of tax season brings hair pulling and teeth gnashing for many, but it's especially grueling for low-income families who fear a big tax bill while wondering if they're missing out on a refund. Those families can get free tax-preparation assistance through a special program run by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Penn State Cooperative Extension offices in six counties around the state again are sponsoring the U.S. Internal Revenue Service's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to prepare federal tax returns for moderate- to low-income families, special-needs individuals and senior citizens. Volunteers and extension staff assist filers with the entire process, from gathering information to submitting the actual state and federal tax returns.

"This year we are trying to help the taxpayer become more organized," says program director Cathy Bowen, Penn State associate professor of agricultural and extension education. "We hope to speed up the process and serve more people. We are trying to reach those families who need their returns completed so they won't have to pay."

The program serves taxpayers whose incomes meet the federal Earned Income Credit (EIC) eligibility guidelines of $42,000 or less for the 2008 tax year. The EIC is a refundable credit that puts federal dollars in the hands of low-to-moderate earners. Bowen explains that individuals and families receiving this credit are more likely to spend the money in their communities, giving local economies a boost.

"We promote the VITA services simply because it is a resource taxpayers could use to save money," Bowen explains. "Unless you have a strong interest in completing your own tax returns, it can be a very scary task, so people need assistance. If low-wage earners do not file a return, money that could help Pennsylvania taxpayers and communities goes unused. We also try to give them financial tips to help them throughout the year, in terms of adjusting and withholding assets, so they could maximize their refund. It really is important; every little bit helps."

Penn State Cooperative Extension personnel and community volunteers operate VITA programs in Cameron, Centre, Elk, Potter, McKean, Mifflin and Juniata counties. All sites offer electronic filing, which means that taxpayers receive faster refunds, particularly if they have direct deposit. In addition to tax preparation, volunteers use one-on-one teachable moments to offer financial tips that can improve financial stability and security.

A complete schedule and contact information for all Cooperative Extension VITA sites can be found on Bowen's "Your Money Your Taxes" Web site at http://extension.psu.edu/spotlight/income-tax/. The site also contains frequently asked questions, tax tips and a list of items taxpayers should bring to VITA sites to get returns completed.

Extension's VITA program in Centre County is a cooperative effort with the Dickinson School of Law at University Park. Nationwide, VITA sites can be located by calling (800) 829-1040.

EDITORS: Contact Cathy Bowen at (814) 863-7670, or by e-mail at cbowen@psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010